Skip to content

Suicidal thoughts remain high among Canadians during pandemic

41% of those surveyed report their mental health has declined in past year.
Depression-Elva Etienne-Moment-Getty Images
Rates of suicidal thoughts and feelings have remained high during the pandemic, new research has found | Elva Etienne/Moment/Getty Images

Suicidal thoughts and feelings among Canadians remain elevated at 8%, compared with 6% in spring 2020 and 10% in the fall of 2020, new research into pandemic mental health effects has found.

And, said researchers with the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) who compiled the survey results, the proportion of people with suicidal thoughts remains substantially higher than the 2.5% observed in 2016.

Overall, 41% said their mental health has declined since the onset of the pandemic, compared to 38% in the spring and 40% in the fall of 2020.

And, consistent with earlier findings, the decline is more pronounced in those who are unemployed due to COVID-19 (61%), people aged 18 to 24 (50%), students (48%), those who identify as LGBTQ2+ (46%), those with a pre-existing mental health condition (54%) and those with a disability (47%).

The five most common emotional responses to the pandemic across Canada were “worried or anxious,” “bored,” “stressed,” “lonely or isolated” and “sad,” said Dr. Emily Jenkins, the lead researcher and a UBC nursing professor who studies mental health and substance use.

She called them challenging emotions.

“About half the people indicated no positive emotional response to the pandemic,” Jenkins said. “That’s a lot of challenges people are experiencing.”

And, she said, we’re still in the thick of it, adding it’s hoped people begin to experience more positive emotions.

“The pandemic has been incredibly hard for many people,” Jenkins said. “There has been significant loss – of loved ones, of connection, of feelings of security. This can contribute to very challenging emotions and it is important to acknowledge and process.”

The data was compiled in late January 2021 using a representative sample of 3,037 Canadians 18 and older.

CMHA chief executive officer Margaret Eaton said feeling upset and managing difficult emotions may be an appropriate response to a major event like a global pandemic.

“Recognizing, understanding and processing our feelings – even the uncomfortable ones – is actually a sign of positive mental health,” Eaton said.
However, said Jenkins, the data was collected before vaccinations began.

“That’s hopeful,” she said.

The researchers said good mental health is not about being happy all the time. Rather, they said, it’s having appropriate emotional and behavioural responses to stressors and life events.

But, it’s important to know when anxious feelings become a cause for concern, they stressed.

“It’s time to seek help if you are feeling overwhelmed for prolonged periods of time or have persistent feelings of worry, anger or despair,” said Dr. Anne Gadermann, co-lead researcher and professor at UBC’s school of population and public health. “Or, if challenging emotions are interrupting your daily functioning, negatively impacting your relationships, your ability to work or enjoy life or causing you to rely on substances to cope.

“If you are having thoughts or feelings of suicide, you should seek help for your mental health.”

The research also found Canadians have increased their screen time (57%), are consuming more food (28%), are doing more online shopping for things they don’t need (18%).

Some 13% reported using more drugs and alcohol due to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The good news is that 79% say they are coping at least fairly well with the stress of the pandemic, using approaches such as walking or exercising outside (51%), connecting with family and friends virtually (43%), maintaining a healthy lifestyle (40%), keeping up to date with relevant information (38%) and pursuing a hobby (37%).

“Investments in mental health are more important than ever right now,” Jenkins said. “They need to be front and centre in Canada’s approach to pandemic recovery.”